George R. Stewart was always interested in how humans react to ecological events, because he saw those reactions as defining human character. Two of his best novels, FIRE and EARTH ABIDES, focus on such events – FIRE, on a great forest fire (and fire ecology); EARTH ABIDES,on a planet-wide disease epidemic which nearly ends the human species.
This last month California experienced fire, and some Californians had a lesson about disease. There were massive and destructive fires, and a literary discussion of an epidemic which references Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES.
Build a home in the woods and, sooner or later, fire will come. Defensible space is a great help; but in suburbia’s tiny lots, there can be none. The fires of 2017 burned through the house-stacked neighborhoods so quickly that – as in the recent Oakland Hills fire – many people died trying to flee. Entire neighborhoods were burned to cinders. And it was lesson about the fragility of stuff – one video shows a classic, restored ’57 Chevy wagon, burned into eternity.
Anyone familiar with George R. Stewart’s work has probably read FIRE. The novel of fire ecology, history, and fictionalized fire drama is one of his best – it, STORM, and EARTH ABIDES are probably his greatest ecological novels. STORM ends with a reference to California history. FIRE, with a beautiful passage about the role of fire in the ecosystem.
FIRE opens with a lightening strike in a mythical national forest set just to the north of the Tahoe National Forest. Stewart’s forest is so well-developed – thanks to the help of his brilliant son, Jack, map-maker and geologist, and a colleague, a famous impressionist painter — that for years readers of the book would drive into that area, looking for the fictional National Forest. In the same way, his story is developed. It centers around people who seemed non-fictional – a young woman in a fire lookout, an old Ranger, and a young Forest Superintendent, and all those who fight the blaze – so the people read true, like the forest, and their drama brings us into the power of a California forest fire like the ones of this autumn of 2017. By choosing rangers as key characters, Stewart is able to integrate the human drama with ecological science. And, in his usual way, he also includes myth, broad science, place-naming, and history.
Walt Disney later filmed the novel for television, as “A Fire Called Jeremiah.” It’s somewhat Disneyfied, but follows the novels ecological and human themes closely. Today, it seems somewhat old-fashioned and crude; but it shared Stewart’s dramatic presentation of fire ecology with millions of Disney TV viewers.
The TV film, like Disney’s TV version of Stewart’s STORM, is not available today. When I asked old family friend, Disney Legend Bob Broughton, about the chances of getting a copy, he said, “Don, the film is in The Vault. And if it’s in The Vault, Walt himself can’t get to it.” Needing to view the films for my George R. Stewart biography, I went on a quest – and actually found a copy in a university library (which shall be nameless); the university kindly set up their old Bell and Howell 16mm projector, and, after decades, I again saw Stewart’s work come to life. There’s now a clip online, probably pirated, but you can watch it here. (Paramount also made a version of the film – changed so much it bears no resemblance to the book. Here’s a clip, again probably pirated, so view at your own discretion.)
Fire appears in several George R. Stewart novels. In EAST OF THE GIANTS, a cleansing fire provides closure to the chapters of the novel set on a Mexican rancho. In FIRE, of course, a massive fire is the protagonist of the work. And in Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES, a fire ends the story of Ish, and moves the story of The Tribe into some unknown, post-novel, new territory.
EARTH ABIDES‘s protagonist is a disease, a kind of super measles which wipes out most humans. In these days of AIDS, Ebola, and the other plagues, the story has as great an impact on readers as it did in the days it was published or in the intervening near-70 years.
Stewart himself was the victim of a plague – the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918. AIDS is a killer, with 38, 000,000 victims. But the flu killed many more – perhaps 100,000,000 worldwide. Stewart should have been safe – he was young, in excellent health, and isolated in World War I training camp where he was preparing to go overseas in the Ambulance Corps. But the flu, ironically, hit the young and healthy with more fatal force than it hit the elderly or those in poor shape. GRS got the flu. He recovered enough to hitchhike halfway home from the East Coast to Pasadena. But for the rest of his life, his lungs were always weak.
Much of EARTH ABIDES is set in the Berkeley hills and the UC Berkeley campus. So it is appropriate that Pat Joseph’s fine recent article, “In Flew Enza,” in the California Alumni Association magazine, CALIFORNIA, describes the effects of the 1918 flu on the UC campus. Murphy ends the article with a reference to Stewart’s novel, setting it in the context of Stewart’s experience with the flu. Since Murphy has kindly allowed this post to link to the article, I encourage you all to read it. Here’s the link
As Murphy writes, Stewart always found hope, an optimism, even in the greatest of events called disasters by humans. Whether he wrote about the benefits of fire to the ecosystem, or indomitable will to persevere after disease had wiped out most humans, Stewart always gives us hope.